Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Storied light in the Hippolytus

Artemis addresses her first words to Theseus, whom she calls the "well-fathered [εὐπατρίδην] son of Aegeus":
Nobly-born son of Aegeus! Listen, I order you! [1285] It is I, Artemis, Leto's daughter, who address you. Why, unhappy man, do you take joy in these things? You have godlessly killed your son, persuaded of things unseen by the false words of your wife. But all too clearly seen is the ruin you have won for yourself! [1290] Why do you not hide yourself beneath the earth's depths in shame or change your life for that of a bird above and take yourself out of this pain? For among good men [1295] you possess no share in life.
It is not that Artemis rejects Theseus's claim to be the son of Poseidon, but here she chooses to underscore, with a kind of built-in irony, his human lineage. She is stating nothing out of the ordinary, but in calling him the child of Aegeus, she is reminding Theseus of his human origin at the very moment his all-too-humanness is coming to light.

Artemis potnia theron
The goddess's language is compressed, but not opaque: Theseus's error is to have been persuaded (πεισθεὶς), by his wife's lying tale, of something unseen, obliterated -- ἀφανῆ -- which in turn makes visible -- φανερὰν -- his ἄτην.
"By lying stories of your wife you were persuaded of the unseen; seen is your blinding."
The well-fathered Theseus here intersects with the common man, who is, according to the Nurse, always semi-blinded, and always borne along by stories.

Recall the Nurse's words coming at the end of her first speech in the play, at the opening of Scene 2:
μύθοις δ᾽ ἄλλως φερόμεσθα.  (197)
We are borne along foolishly by mere tales (μύθοις)
The lying stories of Phaedra are ψευδέσι μύθοις. A longer piece of the passage is worth citing:
Anything we might love more than life is hid in a surrounding cloud of darkness, and we are clearly unhappy lovers of whatever light there is that shines on earth [195] because we are ignorant of another life, since the life below is not revealed to us. We are borne along in vain by mere tales.
The Nurse's words lack lucidity -- and any paraphrase should be true to that -- here's one effort:
Any other thing more dear to us is held back, hidden in cloudy gloom. Yet our inexperience of that other life we do not see makes us unhappy lovers of the light we have. Neither knowing nor not knowing, we are borne by stories.
The Nurse's speech repeatedly interweaves forms of the word ἄλλος -- "other." Some opacity (making us unable to see other than what we see) makes us unhappy lovers of light.  We know there is something we do not see, because seeing some thing -- anything -- is also not-seeing some other. To see is to be blinded to an otherness the seen thing's opacity prevents us from seeing. If the damned light would only get out of the way, we'd see . . .

If the Nurse has grasped the plight of human seeing, then we are all caught in this common predicament, even well-born kings. Artemis echoes that in her condensed summation of Theseus's error. We might keep this in mind as we look at the "death" of Hippolytus, and at what death means in a world borne by stories. If it is the cessation of mortal functions, that's one thing. If it is the obliteration of a name in story, that's another.

{Update} The term used by Artemis to address Theseus, εὐπατρίδην, has a storied past of its own that goes to the origin of Athenian classes:

Eupatridae (literally "good fathered", i.e. "offspring of noble fathers" or "the well-born") refers to the ancient nobility of the Greek region of Attica.
Tradition ascribes to Theseus, whom it also regards as the author of the union (synoecism) of Attica round Athens as a political centre, the division of the Attic population into three classes, EupatridaeGeomori and Demiurgi
Theseus is thus implicated in the very structure of Athenian society, in particular with the aristocracy. Clearly this has interesting implications for the political dimension of the Hippolytus.


ane pixestos said...

If I might share a few thoughts inspired by reading this post:
Some of the points seem to indicate the importance of learning how to read behind appearance to perceiving the motives behind what is seen. The light is therefore not necessarily 'physical', but may be an inner light providing that one has internalized the essence of what is meant by light. (The problem being that this is learned, through mistakes.) Just as the double presence of goddesses in the other post contradicts the seemingly single-explanation monologue: what is seen is to be tempered, never taken as thing-as-itself without added thought as per this definition which I am taking out of context to spice up the comment: "Temperance arose from the Old English temperian, which meant to bring something to a required condition by mixing it with something else." The problem with temperance (referring now to the context of the quotation) is that most of the time, we humans go too far...towards various excesses, blinding ourselves without first asking what Seneca advises (also in connection with drink): imbibe but only after thinking of the consequences. How much exercise, though, does this require...

Tom Matrullo said...

Thank you for the comment and the spicy link upon it, which arrives with a kind of Bakhtinian other voice to create a counterpoint of commentry, if you'll allow the emulation ;)

ane pixestos said...

Yes - we've just spiced up the dialogic imagination!